I do hope that one day this fight will end, and his killers will be held to account
Before my father died, there was a lot of vibrancy in the media and civil society
I know Sri Lanka can do better if the people are given a chance by worthy leaders
I hope it will be possible for me to return to Sri Lanka and to give something back to the country where I was born
Twelve years after the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the founding editor of The Sunday Leader, on January 8, 2009, his killers remain at large.But over the last few years his daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge has become a household name through her activism and litigation to seek justice for the killing of her dad. In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror, Ahimsa reminisced about the heydays of media freedom and civic activism when her father was alive. Now, she says, when people dissent too loudly they are warned to self-censor or ‘end up like Lasantha’. Of her activism on matters other than her father’s murder in the past, she says she was compelled to step in due to the inaction and indifference of the opposition, with especially sharp criticism of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. In Ahimsa’s experience, ‘even Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President’s own brother’, did more to safeguard her father’s investigations in 2020, than the Opposition Leader. The younger Wickrematunge says she has virtually given up on trying to seek justice for her father in Sri Lanka, pointing out that at least four people have so far been killed just to cover up the murder. In her view, the judiciary has sided with the murderers, not the victims. Whenever the CID was about to move against a murder suspect, she charges, ‘someone would get another court order preventing the CID from proceeding’. Ahimsa warned that what she called a judicial trend of court orders preventing the investigation or arrest of suspects in emblematic murders has a chilling effect on witnesses and police detectives investigating these crimes. She sees Sri Lanka as a country where ‘people who have the courage to help me seek justice may have to pay with their lives’. Excerpts of the interview:
Q It has been 12 years since you lost your father. What are some of your most vivid memories of Lasantha?
My most treasured memories of my last few years living with my father were those rare, special and fleeting moments when his phone was either switched off or on silent mode. Most of the time this was when we were in church, praying together or reading the bible and sharing our faith. Most other memories I have of spending time with him end with his phone ringing and him scuttling off into a corner, either to get some minister sacked, topple one government or another or expose a crooked tender scam. That’s usually when I tuned out.
I worry that some of the memories that mean the most to me are going to sound trivial to most people. As a child, I was always terrified of needles and getting vaccines. What I didn’t know until much later was that my father too, was far more afraid of needles than he was of bullets. I remember this because whenever I was afraid to get a vaccine, he would come with me, hold my hand and insist on a nurse also jabbing him at the same time, just to help me to be brave. I still look to memories like that when I am feeling afraid, even today.
If the media become more vibrant and courageous, if civil society and political opposition groups become more probing and fearless, then you can have what my father always dreamed of for Sri Lanka – a transparent, secular, liberal democracy
We are both very stubborn, argumentative and fixed in our ways. There was a time when all I wanted to do was take up acting and singing, which he disapproved of. One day he made me sing to him. Afterwards, he put his arm around me and said “Ahimsa, cats sound better when they are drowning. You are much better at debating and arguing than you are at singing. This is why you should become a lawyer.” Of course, I immediately proved him right by getting into a debate with him on that very topic.
There are also the darker memories, like the time when someone opened fire on our house with assault rifles, sending bullets into our bedrooms. We were all terrified. There were people coming and going from the house and I didn’t know what to feel. When I got to speak to my father alone, he said “you are a lucky girl,” with his signature smirk. Before I could ask why, he continued, “You don’t have to go to school today. When your house gets shot, you get a holiday”. It funny that my father thought this was a laughing matter. He had a way of breaking the tension whenever we were scared or stressed.
My mother is incredibly worried for my life. It’s not just maternal paranoia either. She and my father were dragged out of their car and assaulted when they worked at the Sunday Leader. She jumped in front of my father to protect him and was beaten viciously. She lost the man she married to a killer squad
Q Two years ago, you filed a case in US courts to try and seek justice for your father. Have you ever considered filing any case in Sri Lankan courts? If not, how come?
For the longest time, I was hoping to not have to file any case anywhere at all. From the time I was a child, my understanding of the law was that when someone was murdered, the state, the police, prosecutors, they do the job of filing cases and bringing the murderers to justice. Over time I realized that it was futile to hope the CID could succeed against the combined strength of President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and the Rajapaksa-led opposition.
I don’t think most Sri Lankans or even judges understand this, but every time a court gave orders that stopped investigations from taking place or preventing the arrest of people being investigated for murder, it created a sense of impunity, and put a target on the backs of the brave investigators and witnesses who risked their lives for the cause of justice.
The investigation into my father’s murder itself has claimed at least four lives. Let that sink in. There were the two Tamil merchants who were killed in Vavuniya, so their motorbike could be planted as evidence. There was the witness who exposed the Tripoli team, the mechanic Pitchai Jesudasan, who was killed in custody in prison. And there was the so-called suicide of an army officer witness in 2017. The military obstructed investigations into all these crimes too.
Eventually, it was the dogged investigator, Nishantha Silva, who had to flee the country for his life, just because he did his job. Even the visa officer at the Swiss Embassy, who helped him to escape, and just did her job, has been put through hell.
The Sri Lankan legal system has all sorts of obstacles for seeking civil remedies in a case like my father’s. As a simple example, I am still struggling to find a lawyer who can get some documents I need from the Mount Lavinia Magistrates Court. Many are afraid to file a motion on my behalf. I want justice for my father, but I do not want to seek it in a country where the people who have the courage to help me may have to pay with their lives.
Q You first became a household name for your efforts to seek justice for your father. Since then, you have engaged and written complaints and letters on a number of issues. Why did you decide to broaden your focus?
I never wanted to be a public figure. Wherever I have spoken out, it is because I felt I had a duty to. When I read old newspapers from 10 or 20 years ago, it is astounding how much more timid most of the opposition, media and civil society are today when it comes to standing up for what is right.
When Udayanga Weeratunga was extradited for the MiG deal, I felt so proud on behalf of the Sri Lankan justice system. I think it was you who wrote the article about how for the first time Sri Lanka had extradited someone successfully. But then when the police bent over backwards to try and get him out on bail, I felt I had to file a corruption complaint, out of solidarity with all the police officers and public servants who worked so hard to bring him to justice. No one else was going to do it, and it is what my father would have done.
Then the Government appointed SSP Prasanna Alwis as Director CID. This is a man who is accused of destroying evidence in my father’s murder investigation. Again, I tried getting the opposition to take up the issue, but no one was interested. So, I personally complained to the Police Commission and Constitutional Council against the appointment. When my complaint was taken up at the Council, Sajith Premadasa and the opposition members didn’t even bother attending the meeting. The only reason my complaint was entertained was because Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa both decided that it was serious and warranted investigation. This shocked me. The Prime Minister, the President’s brother, mind you, was doing the job we expected of the Leader of the Opposition. I was speechless.
There has been similar disinterest when it comes to standing up for Shani Abeysekara or saving his life. I know a lot of what happened when he was locked up. Very few people in the opposition were willing to fight for his life. Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Eran Wickramaratne were the notable exceptions.
It was people in the government, ultimately, and brave doctors and public servants, who intervened to save Shani’s life. Many have since been persecuted, transferred or had their powers trimmed.
I wish the opposition did more, but when they are silent, I try my best to do what I think my father would have done, even if I can’t do it even half as well as he could have.
Q It has been said that the 2020 Parliamentary Election has eradicated all hope that there will ever be justice for journalists like Lasantha, Keith Noyahr or Prageeth Eknaligoda. Do you agree? If so, what path do you see going forward?
No, I don’t agree at all. Sri Lankans are a strong people, who I don’t think can be realistically ruled by force. Once they open their eyes, things will change. Even a lot of SLPP politicians I know are today living in fear and are secretly hoping for change.
One positive aspect of the 2020 election was that the people finally showed Ranil Wickremasinghe the door. For Wickremesinghe, all these crimes, victims, and killers were just pieces on his chess board. Now that he has lost, there is real hope that one day when the guilty are on the run again, justice can be served.
It gives me a lot of hope to see people like Mangala Samaraweera, Champika Ranawaka and Karu Jayasuriya coming forward to try and unite civil society movements, opposition groups and professionals to rally people around democratic ideals and fighting totalitarianism. I am so glad that Mr. Jayasuriya decided to rekindle the NMSJ, which he led with the Ven. Sobitha for so many years. It is really encouraging that he is willing to stand up for the truth and for what is right, and to try and assemble like-minded forces under one banner. The next time Sri Lanka elects a leader, I hope they will look at their track record. I can’t think of anyone who has the track record of Mr. Jayasuriya. Jayasuriya had a lucrative private sector career before giving it all up to enter public life.
And of course, I was spellbound by how calmly and professionally he handled the coup in 2018 and he stood tall for democracy.
Premadasa has not even bothered to object to the staggeringly unqualified and unscrupulous appointments that have been made to the Bribery Commission, Police Commission and Public Service Commission by the government.
Although an overwhelming majority of those who voted for Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa are today disillusioned, disappointed or angry, I can’t see even 5% of those people thinking of Sajith Premadasa as a viable alternative because he doesn’t seem to have an alternate view.
Q Sri Lanka is experiencing a great economic crisis, there are signs of communal unrest and COVID-19 looks like it will be a challenge for quite some time. In this backdrop, why should ordinary citizens find it important to seek justice for the murder of a journalist 12 years ago?
Before my father died, there was a lot of vibrancy in the media and civil society. Wrongful arrests, attacks and persecution, as well as corrupt government policy were met by strikes, protests and a lot of civic action. But since he was killed, my father has become a talking point. When a journalist, TV producer or activist gets too outspoken or vociferous against people seen as dangerous, people tell them, “you better be careful, or you’ll end up like Lasantha.”
My father always quipped that he thought it was better to be killed on his feet than live on his knees. Honestly, if journalists, civil society organisers and trade unionists decide that it is better to live on their knees than die on their feet, I can’t blame them. They too have spouses, children and other loved ones. Why should they martyr themselves, knowing that their dependents will be left to fend for themselves with no support? That is the reality of dissent in Sri Lanka today.
If the media become more vibrant and courageous, if civil society and political opposition groups become more probing and fearless, then you can have what my father always dreamed of for Sri Lanka – a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. As my father explained, “transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognize that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be.”
I know Sri Lanka can do better if the people are given a chance by worthy leaders.
Q How do your family and friends relate to the decisions you have taken to work as an activist and the risks that come with it?
I cringe at being called at activist. There are people like Sandya Eknaligoda, Achala Seneviratne and Sarojini Nanganadan who have been on the ground in Sri Lanka, fought for justice and faced death threats. I am relatively safe outside of Sri Lanka, doing what little I can from afar. Even still, I know it is exceedingly difficult for my family. They are constantly getting messages from people connected to the government about how they could ‘reach’ me even outside Sri Lanka.
My mother is incredibly worried for my life. It’s not just maternal paranoia either. She and my father were dragged out of their car and assaulted when they worked at the Sunday Leader. She jumped in front of my father to protect him and was beaten viciously. She lost the man she married to a killer squad. I cannot imagine the pain it would cause her to also lose a child. Even knowing this, it is difficult for me to turn away from this cause. I know it is unfair to my family to put myself in harm’s way. From my own experience, I know that they will be the real victims if something does happen to me. It is something I grapple with all the time.
Both my mother and my two brothers have done their best to convince me to move on, put the past behind me and to try and make something independent of my life. They want me to be happy and to have what is best for me. They say that is what my father would have wanted as well. At the end of the day, I know I cannot ever be happy knowing that the men who killed my father are living happily ever after and were rewarded for their crimes instead of facing justice.
Q You are someone who has most of your life ahead of you. Did you and your father ever discuss your future? Where do you see yourself beyond the mission to seek justice for your father?
My father wanted me to become a lawyer. He was one-track minded in that way. I did dabble a bit in trying to study law, as well as the performing arts, but I never felt that I had found my feet in either of those directions. I hadn’t even finished high school when my father was killed. Losing him just paralysed me. I honestly have not felt motivated by anything I have tried to do in the last 12 years other than fighting on his behalf. I know that doesn’t make much of a long-term plan. I do hope that one day this fight will end, and his killers will be held to account. I honestly don’t know what life would hold for me thereafter. My instinct is that there must be hundreds of others who can’t get justice, but don’t have access to the same level of support and resources I have been blessed with because of who my father was. One day, I hope it will be possible for me to return to Sri Lanka and to give something back to the country where I was born.